Israeli Hetz 3 or US Navy SM-3 caught Iranian exoatmospheric threat

Shortly after dawn on April 14, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted an aerial missile assault on targets within Israeli territory. Based on recent updates, it appears Iran unleashed around 300 drones and several dozen ballistic missiles. In response, Israel activated its air defenses, successfully intercepting the majority of these airborne threats. 

However, some Iranian missiles and drones still managed to reach their targets, specifically the Ramon airbase in the Negev desert. Reports also indicate that a few other ballistic missiles and drones were able to bypass Israeli defenses. 

Nonetheless, a particular video circulating on social media caught our attention. A solitary “colored balloon” sparks momentarily in the dark sky before fading. Shortly after that, another appears in a different form. Witnesses contend that this was the exoatmospheric interception of an Iranian ballistic missile.

Sky over Israel - Iron Dome against Hamas rockets [Photos]
Photo credit: AFP

Understanding the exoatmospheric interception

Exoatmospheric interception refers to the act of intercepting a ballistic missile while it is outside the Earth’s atmosphere. In more technical terms, the Earth’s atmosphere ends approximately 100 kilometers above sea level, a boundary known as the Kármán line. Any interception that takes place beyond this boundary is considered exoatmospheric. 

Ballistic missiles, after being launched, follow a trajectory that takes them outside the Earth’s atmosphere. This is known as the missile’s midcourse phase, and it is during this phase that exoatmospheric interception is typically attempted. The goal is to destroy the missile while it is in space before it has the chance to release any warheads. 

Israeli Hetz 3 or US Navy SM-3 caught Iranian exoatmospheric threat
Photo credit: Raytheon

Exoatmospheric interception involves a complex sequence of events. First, the incoming missile must be detected, usually by radar or satellite. Then, an interceptor missile is launched, guided by data from ground-based radar and possibly onboard sensors. The interceptor must then locate and collide with the target in space, a task often likened to hitting a bullet with another bullet. 

Successful exoatmospheric interception requires exact calculations and timing. The interceptor must match the speed, trajectory, and altitude of the incoming missile to collide with it. This is a challenging feat, given the high speeds at which both the interceptor and the incoming missile are traveling.

Israel and the US can

Israeli C-DOME's combat success - Red Sea target neutralized
Photo credit: IDF Navy

It could possibly be, should the exoatmospheric interception be substantiated, that we are looking at the first exoatmospheric interception carried out in real conflict on April 14th. This event is rather notable as most interceptions are primarily theoretical, restricted to simulations or drills. 

Let’s delve into the details. Both Israel and the U.S. are equipped with weapons capable of executing exoatmospheric interceptions. According to seasoned experts and avid observers alike, we may be looking at two primary contenders for this interception – the Hertz 3 or Strela 3 interceptor, as it’s alternatively known, or the SM-3 interceptor from the U.S. Navy.

Understanding the Arrow 3

Israeli Hetz 3 or US Navy SM-3 caught Iranian exoatmospheric threat
Photo credit: MDA

The Israeli Arrow 3 is an exoatmospheric anti-ballistic missile, designed to intercept and destroy long-range ballistic missiles while they’re still outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and Boeing, the Arrow 3 interceptor is a result of a joint venture between Israel and the United States. The Arrow 3 is specifically designed to counter threats posed by intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] and is capable of multiple simultaneous interceptions. 

The Arrow 3 interceptor operates using a ‘hit-to-kill’ approach, which means it is designed to collide directly with the target to destroy it. This is achieved through a highly advanced radar system and a kinetic kill vehicle, which separates from the missile after launch and travels toward the target using its own propulsion system. The kill vehicle is equipped with sensors that help it detect and track the target, ensuring a precise interception. 

The Arrow 3 interceptor system is also designed to work in conjunction with the U.S. radar system, enhancing its detection and tracking capabilities. This interoperability with the U.S. system not only strengthens Israel’s defense capabilities but also contributes to the global missile defense architecture.

Understanding the SM-3

The US Navy’s SM-3 interceptor, also known as the Standard Missile 3, is a ship-based missile system used by the United States Navy to intercept short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. 

The SM-3 interceptor operates in three stages. The first stage is the ‘boost phase’, where the missile is launched from a ship and propelled into space. The second stage, known as the ‘midcourse phase’, involves the missile’s flight through space, where it uses onboard sensors and ground-based radars to adjust its course. The final stage, the ‘terminal phase’, is when the missile’s ‘kill vehicle’ separates from the rest of the missile to collide with the incoming enemy missile, destroying it upon impact. 

Israeli Hetz 3 or US Navy SM-3 caught Iranian exoatmospheric threat
Photo credit: MDA

Despite its impressive capabilities, the SM-3 interceptor is not designed to counter all types of missile threats. It is primarily intended to intercept short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles and is less effective against intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] or hypersonic glide vehicles.

What’s next?

When a ballistic missile is intercepted in the exoatmosphere, the first event to unfold is the detonation of the interceptor’s kill vehicle. The impact of the kill vehicle causes the missile to disintegrate, resulting in a cloud of debris. This debris is composed of remnants from both the missile and the interceptor. Although this debris continues to follow the missile’s original trajectory, forces from the explosion, along with the absence of atmospheric drag, cause it to spread out and disperse. 

The warhead of the missile, if undestroyed in the initial impact, may also persist on the original trajectory. However, the force of the explosion could potentially knock it off its course. Even if the warhead is not entirely destroyed, the likelihood that it could still detonate is significantly minimized. 

In the circumstance that the warhead is nuclear, an interception in the exoatmosphere proves especially advantageous as it minimizes the risk of nuclear fallout. The explosion would take place in space, a great distance from Earth’s surface, thereby causing any radioactive material to scatter in space rather than in Earth’s atmosphere. However, the debris from the interception could pose a possible threat to satellites and other objects in orbit. The dissemination of debris in the exoatmosphere could lead to a layer of space junk circling the Earth, potentially inflicting damage to any objects in its path.

Arrow 3 has combat experience

About the interception of the Iranian threat in the exoatmosphere, it’s important to note that, even if this feat is accomplished by the Israeli interceptor, it won’t mark its first-ever combat mission. Specifically, it could represent the Arrow 3’s inaugural exoatmospheric interception, but this isn’t its first experience in downing a ballistic missile. 

Take, for instance, a moment back in November 2023. Israel officially announced that their Arrow 3 had successfully intercepted a ballistic missile over the Red Sea. However, this particular occurrence did not take place in the exoatmosphere. According to reports from Israeli sources at that time, the missile in question was launched from Yemen by the Houthis. This gesture was apparently an effort by the group to show solidarity with the terrorist organization, Hamas, and to divert Israel’s attention from its military operations in Gaza.


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